Reflection, Revision, Renewal
We have witnessed an extraordinary decade in technological developments chronicled in AccessWorld since January 2000. No, I am not going to recite those developments or try to forecast the next ten years. However, I do want to reflect on a few milestones and suggest some needed revisions in our technology world. As we begin our second decade, the editorial staff of AccessWorld renews our commitment to objective coverage of information and communications technology issues of importance to people with vision loss.
In our inaugural January 2000 issue, we published an interview with Deane Blazie, the man who was the force behind the now ubiquitous notetakers, and in January 2010, AFB presented Deane with the Migel medal.
In that interview, Deane summed up his success saying, "I didn't really design these products: Blind people did. I just happened to take what they said, put it into a box, and make it work." His Braille'n Speak was indeed a game changer and gave blind people a taste of the power of the personal digital assistant (PDA) when blackberries were still a tasty fruit for sighted people.
Looking back at that first issue, it is interesting to note that both Blazie's company and Arkenstone (the innovative producer of reading machines) were soon absorbed into Freedom Scientific. Other significant mergers and changes would follow, including the combination embodied in today's HumanWare. I don't know how much these mergers led to product improvement or innovation, often touted as the expected outcome, but I do know that assistive technology continues to be very expensive. In her commentary in this issue, Deborah Kendrick reminds us of this lament and even notes that our AT companies sometimes miss on the innovation front too.
Back in 2000, after we published the interview with Deane, a colleague wondered why we didn't ask him questions about why his products, and all assistive technology is so expensive and why the prices for our technology do not get cheaper as happens with mainstream technology. Good questions and I wish I had asked, though I know the answer would involve some variant of low volume of sales, complex technologies and extensive technical support. Nonetheless, we need to look for ways to address the high cost of assistive technology.
The right technology can open the world of information and unlock independence, but it is far too often out of reach for people who do not have the personal means or support from vocational rehabilitation agencies, their employers or schools to purchase it. To put it bluntly, the expense of assistive technology is a "disability tax," which needs to be reduced or eliminated.
I believe that government can play a role in providing subsidies for the purchase of assistive technology. While subsidies are not a full answer, they do help to address the fundamental barrier facing consumers with disabilities who must pay unconscionably high prices for assistive technology just to have access to commercial information and communications technologies. Because AT developers often argue that they do not have the funding to keep up with changes in mainstream technologies, I also believe that government should be supporting research and development to spur improvements in assistive technology as well. In addition, we need to ask mainstream companies to do more to ensure that consumers with disabilities can access and use their technology-based products right out of the box. This means that some of the expense related to accessibility should be borne by the mainstream companies who develop and sell the terrific technologies on which so many jobs, educational opportunities and even leisure pursuits depend.
New legislation, H.R. 3101, described elsewhere in this issue, addresses both the availability of high-cost specialized technology and a set of reasonable access obligations for mainstream companies to meet. The legislation would create a program to provide a subsidy for deaf-blind individuals to purchase the very expensive telecommunications equipment with braille displays that they need to be able to use the telephone. This subsidy would be included in a long established program called the Universal Service Fund which was set up to ensure that telephone service would be available to individuals with low incomes and those living in hard-to-serve rural areas. If enacted, this model could help to spur other approaches to provide government support for assistive technology needed by people with disabilities.
At the beginning of the last decade, the Federal Communications Commission had just finally published the rules that telecommunications companies would be expected to follow in making their telephones and services accessible (as required by Section 255). Other government agencies were putting rules in place to ensure that the federal government would buy technology that was accessible (as required by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act). In this issue, you will see that we are describing a new law and new policy struggles, but we are also still hoping to see more progress in accessible cell phones and business phones and in government procurement driving access to technology.
We need to keep working for changes in policy and meaningful enforcement to improve access to technology and to help to bring down costs. We also need to be vocal consumers, both in advocating for the right policies and in communicating our needs to both the assistive technology industry and to mainstream technology companies.
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